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In criminal law, malice indicates the intention, without justification or excuse, to commit an act that is unlawful. Evidence of malice is a prerequisite in some jurisdictions to prove first-degree murder. Malice is also relevant in criminal law for a charge of Implied Malice Murder, also known as Depraved Heart Murder, where a defendant may be found guilty of murder even though they did not possess an intent to kill another, so long as the defendant recognized that their actions created a substantial and unjustified risk of death but engaged in those actions nonetheless (see malice aforethought). Such malice is also characterized as that which displays “extreme indifference to human life.”

Malice may also be used in connection with defamation cases or controversies concerning the First Amendment. In defamation cases concerning speech (written or spoken) that makes allegations about public officials or public figures (not private individuals), the Supreme Court has ruled that these types of plaintiffs must prove “actual malice” on the part of the person who made the allegations, meaning that they either knew the allegations were false when they made them or exhibited a reckless disregard for the truth (see The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)).

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]